“Ultimately, all of us surrender–it is merely a question of to whom.”
Tuesday morning, 16 August 1938
When sleep’s embrace ended, the hurricane had passed. So too had Adán’s indecision. He returned to Father Fontenot and relinquished the relic to the Society of Leopold. Having successfully completed his ‘two-fold restitution’ to the Jesuit and regained the Shadow Congregation’s favor, Adán was accepted to the archdiocese’s Notre Dame Seminary and ordained a subdeacon of the Church Militant.
In comparison to his last year at Loyola and time as Bruno Legaré, the three years of his magister divinitatis program were relatively placid. With the Black Hand and Rhett Carver still looking for ‘Bruno’ and St. Columba’s relic, Adán was fortunate enough to complete his major seminary in Lafayette’s diocese. As he did at Our Lady of Lourdes and Loyola, Adán excelled in his academic coursework. He especially gained mastery in ecclesiology, systematic theology, liturgy, canon law, and patristics. Additionally, the seminary’s curriculum deepened his fluency in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. Moreover, his formal induction into the Order of St. Ambrose meant that most of his Leopoldite duties entailed performing research in church archives, civic records, and university libraries versus fieldwork. Once again, he was able to safely immerse himself in esoterica, and his erudition and dedicated scholarship earned him esteem among his teachers and peers.
Chief among these was Father Joseph Verbis Lafleur. Joseph was the very antithesis of Adán’s ill-devoted peers at Loyola. When World War II broke out, Father Lafleur valiantly joined the Military Ordinate of the United States. As part of that pastoral organization, he would serve in the Pacific Theatre, before he and 749 other Americans were held as prisoners of war aboard the SS Shinyo Maru. When the USS Paddle tragically sank the infamous hellship, Father Lafleur died to help 82 Americans survive. Adán very well may have become a martyr alongside Father Lafleur, as he almost joined the Military Ordinate.
One thing alone held him back: a long-delayed, but not forgotten, vow to free Marie from Alcide’s possession. Thus, contrary to his seminarian peers’ expectations, Adán neither joined the Ordinate nor transitioned from his scholarly research to pastoral service as a presbyteratus. Instead, in the fall of 1941, he postponed that long-sought honor to continue his academic education, obtaining the bishop’s approval to seek a Sacrae Theologiae Licentiatus, or Licentiate of Sacred Theology, back in New Orleans.
Most of his Leopoldite superiors lauded the decision, as the additional education would make Adán a more useful member of the Order of St. Ambrose. Father Fontenot, however, opposed the plan, noting that it increased the risk of Adán being recognized by the Black Hand. Additionally, the few surviving members of New Orleans’ Brotherhood still blamed the now-ordained deacon for their failure at the Boston Club.
Still, Father Fontenot helped his stubborn pupil secure a position at the recently reconstructed Jesuit Church of Immaculate Conception on Baronne Street in the Central Business District. Of all the archdiocese’s churches, Immaculate Conception had always been Adán’s favorite, at least from an architectural perspective. Beyond its historicity, he adored the aesthetics and engineering involved in its Neo-Venetian Gothic style and Moorish and Byzantine Revival elements, including its enormous nave, niches with archangel statues, Solomonic column, stained glass windows, gold-plated altar from Lyons, 32-feet Open Diapason pipes with Moorish Revival stenciling, and marble statue of Mother Mary with its gilded, lit background. He also loved the church’s unique cast iron pews with Moorish tracery, rosettes, and cryptic icons and scriptural symbols.
The latter became the focus of Adán’s master’s thesis, specifically a certain pew that–according to Adán’s hypothesis–depicted the origins of Longinus’ predestined spearhead, including its antediluvian crafting by Tubal-Cain, use by Lamech, loss in the Great Flood, and meridian discovery by Phaecus the merchant, who gave it in corrupt tribute to Pontius Pilate, who in turn bestowed it to Longinus. Adán’s thesis led him to Lamech’s Song of the Sword, research into the lost Book of the Wars of the Lord, archaeological treatises on the tomb of Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera, and repeated, if unexplained references to an archangel with tripartite heads of a calf, serpent, and wolf.
When not conducting this research or engaged in other graduate studies, Adán served as Immaculate Conception’s deacon; bearing the paten, Book of Gospels, and processional cross during services. Additionally, his labors for Immaculate Conception–for which he was provided a stipend–had him work in the church’s associated Jesuit High School, a prestigious all-male, college preparatory secondary school in Mid-City. There, Adán was reunited with one of his old Loyola friends: Thaddeus ‘Teddy’ Malveaux, known formerly as “Shadrach” and most recently as Father Malveaux.
Also a recent graduate of Notre Dame seminary, Thaddeus had, true to his family’s expectations, become the next ‘Father Malveaux.’ The grandson of Édouard Malveaux, Thaddeus was assigned to the archdiocese’ cathedral, but he also had been tasked by his family to assess whether James Malveaux, his third cousin once removed and student of Jesuit High School, might have the proper qualities to be Thaddeus’ own eventual replacement.
Upon Adán and Thaddeus’ reunion, both filled in the other as to their past activities (though Adán was clearly discrete on certain details). Thaddeus also shared the state of their other college friends, with whom Adán had lost contact. Namely, ‘Meshach and Abednego’ had gone off to fight the ‘heathen’ Japanese imperialists, but Saul Freneau had remained behind to run his family’s estate after his father’s death during the recent “Boston Club riot.”
Adán shared that he was still trying to find Saul’s escort from two years past, but had run into a dead end, as most of Storyville was razed during his time in Lafayette to build the new Iberville Projects. When asked to help, Thaddeus uncomfortably demurred, saying that “visits to a former red light district and asking around about a prostitute would be most unbecoming for a man of the presbyterium–or one trying to join it.”
Adán thanked his old friend for the warning, and the two parted, though they would remain in correspondence over the years and meet during gatherings of the archdiocese’s clergy.
Unbeknownst to Thaddeus, Adán continued his search for Marie whenever he could. And though ‘Shadrach’ had denied him any intentional aid, he had given him Saul’s contact information. When Adán phoned Saul, seeking his help in honoring their mutual vow, Saul refused to speak to him. After listening to Saul’s servants provide an increasingly thin set of excuses as to why their master could not speak, Adán went to the man’s house. Saul’s servants would have turned away the deacon, if not for the intercession of Saul’s younger sister, Ava-Michèl Freneau.
An invalid, Ava, or Evita as her brother was wont to call her, was always happy to entertain. Furthermore, she was intrigued as to why a Catholic deacon would be visiting her brother–as Saul had swiftly fallen back into the life of hellrake.
“If you’ve come seeking a donation from my brother,” she said, as a servant pushed her wheelchair-bound body, “I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed, Father, as Saul claims our family’s accounts are redder than the fields of Saint-Mihiel.”
“I am but a humble deacon, mademoiselle,” Adán replied. “And I come not on official church business, but rather for a personal matter: an old promise that Saul and I made while at Loyola to help a young woman in need.”
With that answer, Ava’s interest was doubly piqued, and part of her wondered whether she was that “young woman in need.” Thus, she escorted Adán–or more technically had him escort her, by pushing her wheelchair and managing the mansion’s elevator–to see Saul.
En route, the two talked, and both found the other an articulate, attentive, and thoughtful conversation partner. Adán also could not help but notice that the young woman was beautiful. After all, the deacon was celibate, not blind. Indeed, Saul’s sister was attractive, but not in the sultry, voluptuous manner lusted after by Bruno’s ‘peers.’ Rather, Ava’s soft, symmetrical, and pale features reminded Adán of Immaculate’s marble statue of Mother Mary. Suddenly aware of how intently he was regarding her face, he forced his eyes to look away, only then noting the Basque rosary ring she wore upon her finger. Its shape was the same of Sister Jolicoeur’s, but it was carved from a single piece of jet.
Following the deacon’s gaze, Ava laughed demurely, “Contrary to popular opinion, not all of the Freneaus are godless reprobates.” Raising the rosary ring with her sole non-paralyzed limb, she added, “It’s made from the shrine of St. James at Santiago de Compostela. Saul gave it to me on my First Communion, in hopes that I would follow after its last bearer and became a nun.”
Hearing such a tale about ‘Nebuchadnezzar’, Adán was momentarily speechless. As if reading the deacon’s thoughts, Ava’s smile faded as she spoke:
“Yes, believe it or not, but my brother used to be exceptionally devout.”
“What… what happened?” Adán asked, his sheer surprise overcoming any sense of propriety.
“Polio,” she said, casting her eyes down to her lap. “When I caught it, Saul believed that if we–which really meant, he–just prayed long and hard enough that I would be healed. He read and reread and read again the biblical stories of Jesus healing the paralyzed men at Capernaum and Bethesda. While our parents hired physicians, Saul persuaded them to make exorbitant donations to the local churches. Though just a teenager, he petitioned local priests to heal me. Some tried. None succeeded, at least, not the way Saul hoped. I tried to lift his spirits–maybe the prayers and blessings had ameliorated or at least halted my palsy? After all, I still have control of one of my limbs, and I can breathe and swallow all on my own. Not all polio victims are so blessed. But Saul… he took it hard. It broke him. His heart… his faith…”
At such revelations, pity and shame filled Adán’s spirit–pity for the palsied girl and her faith-shaken brother, but also shame that Adán had never bothered to learn why Saul was so antagonistic towards the Church and those that believed in it. Overcome by such emotions, he reached down to grasp the young woman’s hand, then spoke the only words he could before tears choked his voice completely.
“I’m sorry… sorry that I was… that the Church… could not, did not heal you…”
The smile returned to Ava’s face as she replied:
“There is no need to feel sorry–not for me. Even if you could call upon the Almighty right here and now and command my legs to walk, I would not have you do it. My condition has been a blessing. Yes, it has been, to quote St. Paul, a ‘thorn in the flesh’, and as a younger girl, I did beseech the Lord to have it ‘depart from me.’ But I have learned to take comfort in the Lord’s reply to Paul: His grace is sufficient for me, and His ‘strength is made perfect in weakness.’ ‘Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.’ If only I could make Saul understand: polio didn’t ruin my life–it protected and purified it. True, I am an invalid, unable to walk or run, and unlikely ever to marry or bear children, but my condition has kept me from all manner of temptations. And ultimately, my condition–like all of our mortal lives–will be but a mote of dust compared to the eternities to come, and if I am faithful, I shall not only walk and run, but fly with the angels. No, the one who needs healing is my brother, and not from any physical infirmity.”
Awed by the private homily, Adán reverently knelt and proclaimed:
“Solomon must surely have seen your day when he said a virtuous woman is far more precious than rubies.”
At Adán’s gesture and praise, Ava blushed like a rose.
Yet, before either could respond, both were startled by the sound of Saul shouting–for he had been summoned by his servants, only to find Adán kneeling and holding his sister’s hand:
“WHAT IN THE NAME OF BEELZEBUB ARE YOU DOING—Adán, are you PROPOSING to my sister?!”
Shocked by Saul’s presence, volume, and mistaken accusation, Adán released Ava’s hand, stood up, and tried to stammer a reply. Ava’s response was more coherent, and far sterner:
“Saul, there is no need to yell–my ears, unlike my legs, work perfectly. And we have spoken about you using those kind of names.” Gesturing to Adán, she then added, “And Deacon St. Cyprien was merely expressing his sympathy for my palsy, though I would hope, dear brother, that should a man as fine as the deacon ever propose to me, that you will find a more temperate response.”
Still flustered, Adán watched as the siblings glared at one another, till eventually, Saul glanced away as if losing a hand of Boston de Fontainebleau. Gesturing to Adán, he strode off to a parlor:
“Come on then, Belteshazzar, let’s get this over with; I can only deal with only one religious fanatic at a time.”
Once inside the parlor, Saul all but filibustered his old dorm-mate, contending that he simply could not afford to make a donation to pay for the Church’s “newest gold-leafed balustrade, ten-foot candle, or imported teak paddle for spanking wayward war orphans.” Rather than inheriting a wealthy estate, Saul claimed that what the Great Depression didn’t take, his father had squandered with spurious investments.
Worse, the deceased Freneau patriarch had racked up numerous gambling debts to his fellow club members on lost card games and horse races. With those club members all calling in their debts, Saul simply didn’t have enough money to cover it all, unless he sold the Freneau mansion. Rather than lose face with New Orleans’ high society or make his sister homeless, Saul had desperately turned to the mob for a ‘loan.’ While that allowed him to cover things with the Boston Club, the Black Hand’s ‘interest rate’ was steep, and Saul was well aware of what the mob would do if he failed to pay them back.
When Adán was able finally to explain that he had come not for a donation but for assistance in their vow to free Marie, Saul was first confused, then angry:
“That was over four years ago, Adán! Why can’t you just let it go?! The others have, even Thad.”
“We made a vow, Saul; they did not,” the deacon said with warring ire and disappointment. “We swore on the same cross that cleansed you of the unclean spirit.”
Saul walked to a window, unable to stare Adán in the eye as he spoke his next words:
“So you say. I was drunk, all but passed out. The charlatan probably just drugged me, hoping to rob me. The girl was likely in on the con. But it was fine, nothing that sleep wouldn’t, or didn’t, cure. You just saw what you wanted to see, just another of the many religious fantasies that you, my sister, and the rest of your lot like to delude yourself with.”
Saul’s denial cut Adán like a knife in the dark, but the deacon found his heart pierced more with sadness than anger. He was silent for some time before he arose and escorted himself out–though not before reiterating St. Peter’s pronouncement to Ananias:
“Thou hast not lied unto men, but God.”
Adán all but shook the dust off his clothes as he left Saul’s home, believing that his work with the impenitent Freneau had come to an end.
Yet, within a few days, he received a letter from Saul’s younger sister. In it, Ava apologized for her brother’s “calloused heart”, but also expressed gratitude for Adán’s visit and his kind words to her. It was a letter he could have left unrequited, but he penned a brief reply thanking her in turn for her hospitality and “beatific heart.” He mailed it, thinking their correspondence finished, only to receive a new missive from Ava the following day.
This time, her letter was much longer. Most of its content was naturalistic observations colored by whimsical fancy, such as her noting how the oak-hung Spanish moss outside her window recently swayed “like a line of Oriental dancers dressed in celadon veils”, or how a pelican had alighted atop her gabled roof, bringing to mind St. Aquinas’ hymn, Adoro te devote. Yet, the letter also contained more weighty matters, chief of these being her worries that her father’s soul had been consigned to Purgatory’s fires for his unpaid gambling debts and the plight it created for his children.
The tenderness of this last subject prompted Adán to pen a comforting reply, rationalizing that it was his duty as a deacon to preach and evangelize. He shared St. Catherine of Genoa’s presentation of purgatory in opposition to Tertullian dogma or the speculative presentation of Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii. He also reiterated church catechisms that, because of the communion of saints, the faithful who are still pilgrims on earth are able to help the souls in purgatory by offering prayers in suffrage for them, almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance.
More letters followed. Their correspondence always had a theological element, be it a shared homily, scriptural inquiry, or doctrinal discussion. Yet, as time went on, their exchanges increasingly included more personal, if quotidian topics, such as a particularly striking sunset, a humorous response on a high school student’s exam, or a perplexing riddle from the Times Picayune. Each shared details of their personal and familial pasts. Some of these stories were happy, like Sister Jolicoeur giving Adán and the other children sweet bread treats during Paschal week. Others were sad or somber, such as their mutual adjustment to being orphans. Ava shared her thoughts on the war’s progress, and Adán provided updates on his seminary research on the spear of Longinus.
Yet, on the eve before Adán defended that thesis in the late winter of 1944, Ava visited him at his small apartment in the Iberville Projects. Unbeknownst to Saul, she had booked a taxi, whose driver had then pushed her to Adán’s thankfully first floor door. When Adán responded to her gentle knock at his door, he was shocked by her presence. Despite all their correspondence, he had not seen her since their first meeting.
“It’s a little early for Pascal bread,” she said, opening the pastry box in her lap and revealing a handmade king cake, “and it’s not penia like Sister Jolicoeur used to make for you back in Eden, but I thought, with it being Epiphany’s Eve…”
Adán was truly touched by the gift, especially as he had spent most of the day searching for Marie in the Lafitte projects, Iberville’s black-segregated counterpart in nearby Tremé. Like so many other days, his efforts had proved unsuccessful, as his skin color and ecclesiastical collar made most of the Lafitte residents wary, especially since Adán had little to go on, save for the woman’s presumably fake name, ignoble career, and vague, second-hand reports of her quadroon features.
Feeling somewhat despondent of ever finding Marie, and not wanting to leave the crippled woman unattended, he invited Ava inside. While revelers outside loudly proclaimed the arrival of Carnival season, Adán and Ava shared the petite king cake in his austere apartment that had more books than furniture. Indeed, never having ‘entertained’ a guest before, the flustered deacon tried to find a non-existent pair of chairs for them to use.
“I already brought my seat,” the wheelchair-bound Ava teased good-naturedly.
“Oh, I… yes, of course,“ he stammered, absent-mindedly running a hand through his hair. “It’s… it’s been a taxing day.”
“Well, I can imagine it’s quite usual to feel nerves before defending your thesis. A bit like wedding day jitters, perhaps?”
Further flustered by her matrimonial reference, Adán took a moment before he shook his head. “No… not the thesis. After all, writing the final manuscript was the most laborious part of the process. It was–It’s just that…”
Ava put down her plate and fixed her “bleu ciel” eyes on Adán; her petition for him to confide his woes silent, but undeniable. His reservations dissipated like the dew before dawn. He shared his half-decade-long search for Marie, as well as his lack of progress. He did not explicitly name Saul’s involvement, but she astutely guessed it all the same.
Though she had no immediate counsel, her kind ear provided Adán some measure of renewed hope. After finishing the cake together, Adán saw her to a cab, though not before she left him with a final gift: a white handkerchief embroidered with a vulning pelican and the first line of Adoro te devote.
“In case I need to wave surrender during the thesis defense?” he quipped with a gentle smile.
“Ultimately, all of us surrender–it is merely a question of to whom.”
“Too true,” Adán nodded, then tilted his head in thought. “Who penned that maxim, by the way? It seems familiar–was it St. Jerome of Stridon–or no, St. Thérèse of Lisieux?”
“Ava-Michèl Freneau of New Orleans,” the young woman replied with a winsome smile. “Her canonization is still in question.”
As God wills it, was the deacon’s parting thought as he watched Ava’s taxi disappear into the Twelfth Night.